It’s always an instructional moment for a pastor when she finds herself confronted with a Bible passage she’s afraid to preach. This happened to me a few months ago. I was reading through Luke’s Gospel, and suddenly right there in the middle of chapter 23 I felt the sweat breaking out on my forehead.
Jesus is hanging from a cross. He looks down at the Roman soldiers who are slowly killing him and says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Then he looks to the side at the criminal hanging next to him and says, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”
Most people I know can sympathize with Jesus’ mercy in one of these directions.
Some might say (and have said), “Those soldiers were just doing their jobs. How were they supposed to know they were executing an innocent man?”
Others might say (and have said), “This outlaw is poor and under occupation. Yes, robbing and killing are bad, but under the circumstances, aren’t his actions understandable?”
Yet viewed from a different angle, both stories might also look different. After all, these soldiers aren’t just mindless drones. They are mocking and jeering for fun. They are gambling to claim the spoils. They are gleeful participants in a travesty of justice.
After all, this outlaw isn’t just objecting to Rome. He’s attacking random people traveling on the road. Real people and their children may go hungry, even die, because of the actions of him and his compatriots.
Clearly, first-century Palestine did not lack in moral complexities. Yet there at the intersection of these complexities hangs the crucified Jesus. Luke’s Gospel keeps the spotlight focused relentlessly on him, with his hands extended both down (to the soldiers beneath him) and sideways (to the criminals beside him).
What are we to make of a man like this? This is what shakes me as I gaze on him: I understand why they — we — killed him.
The one thing everyone can agree on is that no one wants a man like this.
To the Romans he’s dangerous, a rebel, or at least a sympathizer. Get rid of him before he disrupts anything else.
To the people of Judea, he’s a sell-out, a compromiser. Give them Barabbas any day — at least he knows how to get things done.
And what about the ones who deep down believe that Jesus is in the right? Who knows how many they are or who they might be, because they are in hiding, afraid.
Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This kind of indiscriminate grace has always been both the heart of the story and the hardest part of it to swallow.
I, like most everyone else, know precisely how far and in what directions I want this grace to reach. Yes, grace, but only cast downward. Or only sideways. Yes, grace, but grace that kicks in on some kind of delayed release, only after the soldiers grasp what they’re doing, only after the criminal gets his due.
This story does not excuse. It does not minimize. It does not justify. In fact, the cross is the antithesis of all these things. It’s the place we’re forced to face the tremendous cost of all of our blindness and sin.
But there’s one claim the story makes that is hard to escape: God’s grace always comes first.
There is a God who is always, always reaching — toward Roman soldiers, toward criminals, toward hiding disciples, toward all kinds of sinners. A God whose love is truly indiscriminate, just like the sun and the rain.
And praise God that it is so, because if it weren’t, we all would be doomed.
Christian discipleship is not about earning God’s ‘yes’ but learning to live into the ‘yes’ that has already been spoken — spoken to us and spoken also to our enemies who hang broken beside and below us.
This is the good news of the cross, both its scandal and gift.
Meghan Larissa Good is teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., and author of The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense of Scripture Today (Herald Press).